UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT SERVICES
Isolation in the Garment Industry
Portrait of a Homeworker in 1992: Chau Yuet-Sheung
What is a “homeworker” and what was it like to be one in the Canadian garment industry after the economic recession in 1981? This photograph depicts a young homeworker, Chau Yuet-Sheung, holding her camera-shy son in a domestic makeshift workplace. As I learned about Yuet-Sheung’s story as an immigrant and a mother, I was able to answer these questions and understand the implications of what it meant to work at home during this time.
Immigrant homeworker Chau Yuet-Sheung with her son, May 1992. Photographer: Lisa Sakulensky. Source: Roxana Ng Fonds, University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.
Yuet-Sheung was posing to be on the cover of Our Times, a labour magazine, accompanying an article about the growth of labour exploitation in Toronto. Her bravery is shown through her agreement to be photographed, as many homeworkers interviewed wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. To maximize profits, the garment industry had restructured towards a pyramid model. Clothing manufacturers hired domestic employers subcontracting labour to homeworkers for lowest possible wages.
International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) Study
In 1991, a study of Chinese immigrant homeworkers revealed that 21 of 30 homeworkers were paid below minimum wage. They were responsible for purchasing their sewing equipment, an expense typically greater than $3,500. On top of their daily domestic duties, they worked up to 70 hours a week. Almost all the women reported that they felt lonely and preferred to work in a factory if they could afford childcare. The displacement that stemmed from moving to a new country was further reinforced through working alone at home.
Homeworkers’ Association: Field Trip to Niagara Falls, May 1992.
Source: Roxana Ng Fonds, University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services
Homeworkers’ Association (HWA)
The isolation expressed by these women led to the formation of the Homeworkers’ Association in 1992. Yuet-Sheung was an active member in this community. Immigrant homeworkers now had a safe space to connect, communicate and share their experiences. The HWA provided educational workshops about workplace rights and classes where women could learn English, sewing and pattern-making. They spent time together as families through organized recreational activities like picnics, holiday parties and field trips.
When I look at Yuet-Sheung and her son, I think about my family’s immigration history and the privileges I had growing up. Yuet-Sheung had been a homeworker for 8 years when this photograph was taken in May 1992. At that time, my parents were engaged and my father was starting his own medical practice as a family doctor. Both of my parents are Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong – my mother moved to North America as a foreign student in 1983 and my father moved to Toronto with his family in 1975. Since I was born in May 1994, I am only a few years younger than Yuet-Sheung’s son. I am Canadian-born Chinese, and at times, my connection to what it means to be Chinese gets lost. Through my encounter with Yuet-Sheung and her son, I have learned that no matter how Canadian I feel, or how broken my Cantonese is, being Chinese is a part of my identity and should be something I am proud of. Yuet-Sheung’s migration story emphasizes the importance of belonging to a community that encourages you to honour your heritage, while also looking towards the future with hope.
Tabitha Chan communicates creatively through writing, visual art, social media and graphic design. As a Master of Museum Studies candidate at the University of Toronto, she aims to convey stories through content curation. She holds a BFA in Studio Arts and a BA in English from Western University. Tabitha was born in Toronto and has lived in the same suburban house her entire life, but has also traveled to New York, Spain and Hong Kong.
I am Canadian-born Chinese, and at times, my connection to what it means to be Chinese gets lost. Through my encounter with Yuet-Sheung and her son, I have learned that no matter how Canadian I feel, or how broken my Cantonese is, being Chinese is a part of who I am and should be something I am proud of.